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Covid-19: GCSE and A-level Exams

Volume 808: debated on Thursday 3 December 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on classroom-based learning, what plans they have for (1) GCSE, and (2) A-level, exams (a) in 2021, and (b) beyond that date.

My Lords, the noble Lord’s Question is certainly topical, as the Secretary of State for Education made an Oral Statement on 2021 exams in the other place earlier this morning. In recognition of the challenges faced by students this year, the Government have introduced a package of new measures that will help to ensure that every student is able to receive a fair grade that reflects what they know and can do.

I welcome today’s Statement. I trust that my Question did not make the Government rush it out precipitately. They seem to be doing everything they can to be fair and generous to those whose education has been disrupted by Covid. Can my noble friend confirm that consideration has been given to those schools and individuals disproportionately affected by the pandemic, not just now but in the coming months?

My Lords, the Government indeed recognise that there has been differential learning loss and—working alongside Ofqual, which has responsibility in this matter—we considered a regional approach, but that was quickly ruled out as unfair. However, we have established an expert advisory group whose job is to monitor and make recommendations about anything further that we can do to address differential learning loss.

My Lords, I welcome the Government’s decision to hold GCSE and A-level exams this year, and their admission that to cancel them last year was a mistake. It certainly was, as some of us said at the time. The measures that the Government now propose are, for the most part, welcome too, although more than a little late. However, the measures make no reference to FE or HE, even though public exams are a gateway to those sectors. Why have the Government no proposals for schools to inform colleges and universities of how much schooling applicants have missed and whether they had adequate access to online learning? This is vital information if university and college admissions are to be fair.

I can assure the noble Baroness that we have worked closely, obviously, with FE and HE because the examination system of course bolts on to admissions, particularly in relation to the grade profiling that we have outlined. That will be similar but not identical to last year’s, because HE in particular was used to the system that there was last year. However, entry will be on the basis of grades and that is why we have maintained the exams at 16—the majority of English students move institution at that age.

I very much welcome the announcement by the Government. As we know, there is educational disadvantage throughout the country, depending on which school and region one is in. It particularly affects those in poorer areas. The Minister said that considering regional variations would be unfair. Why would that be the case?

My Lords, the effect on children, even within a region, can be variable and any regional approach could easily mean that there would be unfairness—for instance, if a child has been out of school for a length of time and lived one mile into Cheshire, while there was a regional approach for Trafford. Our approach tries to address the fact that every child has had their education disrupted. We have said that at the end of January the topic areas will be announced, as well as the aids that a child can take into an exam. That will enormously relieve the pressure and be as fair as possible to individual children. It is not possible, though, to have a fair system that is regionally based.

My Lords, I declare an interest as the founder of the university technical colleges. Is the Minister aware that on 26 November, some 798,000 students were due to attend school? The attendance rate is at about 80% and is likely to continue like that until Christmas and be worse afterwards. This means that the teaching days lost will be different for individual students. Some may lose five days of teaching while others may lose 40. In that case, will the class teacher, who will be the only one who knows how many days have been lost per student, be allowed to adjust the grades of each student to reflect the amount of education that each one has missed?

My Lords, no, we are not relying on teachers in that way. We are convinced that, for those students who are part of the way through their courses, the fairest way to assess them is through an examination system in which, of course, they are anonymised. That has been a concern over the years for various cohorts of students, such as BAME pupils in terms of subjective assessments. We stand by the fact that the fairest way to do this is to hold public examinations. The adaptations that we have announced will, as far as is possible, give children an examination that tests their knowledge. They will be aware of the topic areas and any aids that they can take into the examination hall at the end of January.

I declare an interest as the chair of a multi-academy trust. I welcome the statement from the Minister, but I would add that making exams easier to pass does not necessarily help the poor the most. As there are groups of us who are anxious that this opportunity for levelling up is not lost, perhaps we could meet with the Minister when she has time.

My Lords, I always welcome the opportunity for meetings and I hope that in the new year our meetings can be face to face rather than on Zoom. We are convinced that this set of adaptations and the fact that the exams have been delayed by three weeks will help those students who have been out of school the most. We cannot create a perfect situation, but we are confident that these adaptations will help those children the most.

My Lords, the Government have finally listened to calls from Labour, school leaders, trade unions and parents by setting out a plan for next year’s exams, but this really should have been in place months ago to give pupils, parents and schools the clarity they need. Significant numbers of pupils have been and will continue to be absent from school due to Covid-19, causing disruption to their education. Of course, the pattern across the country is uneven. This raises the spectre of these young people being examined on what they have not been taught rather than what they have been. What makes the Minister confident that the expert group announced today can ensure that such a damaging outcome is avoided?

My Lords, since schools have returned, they have known about and had to adapt to the guidance for public health restrictions on the curriculum, such as not running geography field trips. But at the end of January, they will know the topic areas on which most examinations will be set. That means that—although many schools are doing a sterling job of catching up for these young people—if that part of the curriculum has not been covered yet, they will know at the end of January to cover it. As the exams are three weeks later than normal, that should give adequate time. We expect the majority of the curriculum to have been taught to the majority of students but, to make sure, they will know these topic areas. That should address the noble Lord’s point.

My Lords, having listened to the Secretary of State this morning on the welcome but tortuous arrangements for the next GCSEs, may I ask what consideration the Government have given to doing away with GCSEs? With the raising of the school leaving age, they are no longer a school leaving exam and the time spent on working for exams could be much better spent on life skills, career options and preparation for adult life, as well as instilling a love of learning, which is so often displaced by the tyranny of exams.

My Lords, exams give students an opportunity to show what they know and to be assessed on it objectively. I pay tribute to schools and exam centres that, even during the recent lockdown, ran examinations for approximately 20,000 students. We are confident that exams can be run next year. As I have outlined, exams at 16 are important in England, because the majority of our students transition at that age.

The noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, brings us good news for once. That exams will go ahead is especially important when so many have opportunistically used the pandemic to lobby against exams per se—no U-turns, please. When the Secretary of State says that the most important thing is how young people progress to the next stage, does it not reduce exams merely to credentials on pieces of paper? What are the Government doing about the knowledge gap to compensate for what is not being taught, beyond exams? While I commend creative special measures, generous grading and so on, some teachers say that exam aids and crib sheets are an official endorsement of cheating. Can the Minister comment?

My Lords, we are confident that schools—as will be shown when they are inspected by Ofsted, which will not happen until at least the summer term—are delivering a broad and balanced curriculum. The changes and reforms that have been introduced to GCSEs should be knowledge rich, so that students leave with a love of learning and not just exams to help them transition to the next stage.

Sitting suspended.